Woman Keto, Aila Inkeri


Biochemist and Environmentalist

Written by Judy Lambert (edited from blogs prepared by Jane Elix), Australian National University

Aila Keto was born in Tully, North Queensland in 1943. With her Finnish parents, who were recent immigrants to Australia, she spent much of her early life exploring the Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding tropical rainforests. Leaving for boarding school at 14 was 'the start of her independent life'. After enrolling in Pharmacy at James Cook University, Aila soon branched out to study a range of science subjects, which she describes as expanding her understanding of how life worked. After transferring to Queensland University, her studies focused primarily on plant biochemistry. Following the death of her mother, just as Aila was beginning her Masters degree, she returned to Finland with her father to stay with family for a year. On her return she married Keith, a biochemist she had met at University, beginning an enduring personal and professional partnership that continues today.

Aila's conservation work was greatly influenced by Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and by eminent scientists including American Dr Peter Raven and the UK's Professor Norman Myers. In 1982 she and Keith formed the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society, of which she has been President for the past 30 years. Alia recognises that due to her dedication to conservation, her son Matthew had a unique upbringing. Weekend sport and regular family holidays were replaced with opportunities to experience special places and to meet a range of interesting and committed people with whom his parents interacted.

Aila's influence in the conservation of Australia's Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and in other environmental outcomes is reflected in the numerous national and international awards she has received over recent years As a naturally reserved person, she frequently finds social interaction 'awkward'. As a consequence, her reserved personality is sometimes mistaken for arrogance. She developed her leadership skills by seeking out the best people and gaining their advice and support. She highlights the importance of building collaborative relationships based on trust, with those on all sides of a debate, and of using research skills to ensure that one's input is credible and demonstrates an understanding of the issues. Recognising or creating opportunities then being ready to run with them is the key to success. Aila sees leadership in the environment movement as going through cycles. Having been dominated by women in the 1990s it has now returned to a male-dominated phase. She stresses that while there are 'lots of outstanding exceptions', women leaders in the environment movement tend to be more caring, nurturing and networking in their approach, while men are more aggressive and competitive.

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